Archive for January 2011

Computer Programming and Translation

This one’s for you, Schultzie. Not long ago I was telling a friend about my experience of learning to write simple computer programs in FORTRAN 77, at the age of 13 or 14. This was at the University of New Orleans, where I must have been enrolled in some sort of summer program for kids, can’t remember the details. After we had written our programs, they were entered into a machine that produced punchcards that the computer could somehow decipher. I remember liking the teacher, but my memory of him has blurred: dark beard, plaid shirt. But that isn’t the part I wanted to write about. The important part of this memory is that this almost-forgotten teacher instructed us not to begin writing our programs until we had worked out, using flow charts, every detail of every operation we wanted our programs to perform. We had to draw conceptual maps of our intentions, only afterwards deciding what combination of commands in FORTRAN 77 would best embody them. Often there would be more than one way to express a certain part of the map, though usually one way would turn out to be better (more direct, more “elegant”) than the other. I think this early experience of thinking about language had a distinct impact on my development as a translator. I do believe that a crucial step in translating well—in fact, the step that is hardest to teach—involves being able to conceive of an intention (what you want to say, and how you want to say it) in an abstract way that does not depend on actual words. First you decide – by reading the original – what it is that needs to get said, and then you go looking for the words that will achieve this saying, and if the words you find are not as direct and elegant as you want them to be, you look for others. This differs in a sense from original composition: when you are writing your own text, the words and the thing they are expressing tend to arrive already melded. But even when I am writing my own work, I do sometimes have a sense that the thing that needs saying next is rising up from the depths below the surface of the text, and sometimes there is a lag before the words for it arrive.

Bilingualism in the Kitchen

I was talking yesterday with a young Swiss artist, Tobias Kaspar – who’s quite interested in translation in general and Robert Walser in particular – about how it is that in many parts of the world growing up bilingual doesn’t necessarily make one good at translating. In all those Swiss towns in which both French and German are spoken, though, I suspect that people are much better at translating than the international average, even if they’ve had no special training in it. This is because in this explicitly multilingual environment in which e.g. most supermarket products are labelled in three languages, people grow up accustomed to thinking about and in the interstices between languages where translation occurs.

And after years of translating and helping generations of students become more proficient at doing so themselves, I think that translation must reside in a part of the brain separate from (but linked to) the parts that govern writing, speaking and language-learning. When we work on translations, we strengthen the synapses that link all these lobes together. At least that’s how I picture it. I’d love to know more about the science behind this. While discussing all these things with Tobias, I mentioned one particular friend of mine who grew up bilingually in a context in which very little translation was required: everyone in the family was fluent in both languages – one of which was always spoken inside the home, the other outside it. As an adult now, she can speak and write elegantly in both, but isn’t so good at translating between them. And last night – just a few hours after this conversation – she came over while I was dreaming to make me dinner in my own kitchen. When the food was ready, she served it by ladling out spoonfuls onto the two front spiral heating coils on my stove. So this dream answered the question of what gets lost in translation: it’s the plates.

New Directions Tops the Best Translated Book Award 2011 Fiction Longlist

The Best Translated Book Award has been around since 2007, its stated goal to “bring additional attention to international works of literature” and “honor original works in translation,” particularly those published by smaller presses. Actually that last bit (smaller presses) is my own addition, but so far the yearly longlists for the prize have tended to favor small and medium-sized publishers, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that smaller presses have been publishing a disproportionately high number of works in translation, and many of the biggest presses disappointingly few. I am proud to see that the 25-book fiction longlist announced this morning contains a full six books (24%!) put out by my favorite medium-sized publishing house New Directions, two of them translated by me. Yes, I’m boasting now: I have two books on the BTBA fiction longlist this year, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and Microscripts by Robert Walser (co-published by New Directions and Christine Burgin). And I note with pleasure that the list also contains a great many other wonderful translators whose work I hold in high regard – see the list itself (below) for the full picture – so the competition will be stiff. The stakes are high this year, too, since after several years of being just about the glory, the BTBA was recently underwritten by and now comes with cash prizes for both translator and author of the winning books in both the fiction and poetry categories. The poetry longlist hasn’t been announced yet, but should be forthcoming soon.
So what happens next? Mark your calendars with these BTBA dates:
March 24: Shortlists will be announced in both fiction and poetry.
April 29: BTBA winners will be announced as part of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York.
Between now and then, the literature-in-translation blog Three Percent, run by BTBA mastermind and founder Chad Post, will be publishing individual profiles of each book on the list.

And here’s the 2011 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)

A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)

Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions/Christine Burgin)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

When Book Reviewers Ignore Translators

As Co-Chair of the PEN Translation Committee, I frequently field complaints about book reviewers who ignore the fact that a book under review was written originally in some language other than English. Despite the shaping influence of the translator on the text, many reviewers simply choose to disregard the fact the the finished book was written twice: once by the author, and once by the translator. Or sometimes reviewers will say something on the subject, only to find that their editor has deemed these sentences superfluous and cut them out. In any case, even in cases when the translation is not given even the lip-service courtesy of a two-word descriptor (capably translated, beautifully translated, adequately translated, etc.), it is standard practice for newspapers to at least credit the translator in the brief blurb at the top of the review stating the book’s author, title and publisher. So it is particularly egregious that the Wall Street Journal’s recent review of Edith Grossman’s translation of Carlos Fuentes’s book Destiny and Desire does not do even that. Reading the review, it is not possible to ascertain that Fuentes’s book was not written in English. Now, the Wall Street Journal is a venerable newspaper with a long history of book reviewing and cultural reportage; I’ve even written for it myself. So I hope that this oversight was a fluke. But the error has still not been corrected and stands front and center upon the WSJ website for all to see, despite the letter that my colleague Jonathan Cohen, himself a translator from the Spanish and member of the PEN Translation Committee, sent to the editor of the WSJ two weeks ago. Since his letter was neither printed in the paper nor replied to in any other form, I am taking the liberty – with his permission – of reproducing it here:

Jan. 10, 2011

Dear Editor:

I am writing in response to a book review, titled “Intellectual Intrigue in Mexico City,” which appeared in the WSJ this past weekend.

“If English is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me,” as some English-only advocates say in select corners of the United States, based on the blind assumption the Bible was originally written in English. Alexander Theroux’s review of Carlos Fuentes’ new novel, Destiny and Desire (Jan. 8), apparently subscribes to the same point of view, or blissful ignorance.

Why dumb down literature this way in our global age? Theroux talks very smartly about the book that, in reality, is a translation from Spanish – indeed, the work of acclaimed translator Edith Grossman – yet he never once addresses this important aspect of the book. He seems out of touch.

That said, we need to develop a culture of translation in this country, in which book reviewers can talk intelligently about translated books. The time is now. We belong to a big world of people who aren’t all made in our English-only image of ourselves.

I, for one, hope to see your editorial policy change to require that your book reviews acknowledge translations as such and name the translator(s) who authored them.


Jonathan Cohen

I would add that the omitted attribution is particularly ironic given that the reviewer’s brother, Peter Theroux, is himself a respected translator from Arabic as well as author. Alas, the exclusion of translators from discussions of their work is still a mainstream practice. Let’s do what we can to drive it to the fringes. Want to help? It’s easy! Just write a letter to the editor every time you see a review of a translated book that discusses the book as though it were not a translation. If enough letters come in, the newspapers will eventually change their ways. I’m sure they will. A little optimism can’t hurt.

Talking Translation at Ugly Duckling

Ugly Duckling Presse‘s Cellar Series, a semi-secret salon held at irregular intervals in the Presse’s basement headquarters at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, offered up a pair of blue ribbon speakers last night: Richard Sieburth of NYU, who is known for his excellent translations from both German and French (e.g. Hölderlin, Büchner, Leiris and Michaux), and poet Christian Hawkey, whose latest book, Ventrakl, published by Ugly Duckling, I recently reviewed. The series can’t be made open to the public in the broader sense, because there just isn’t room. Even as it was, audience members were crammed in between (if not on top of) pieces of printing equipment and big boxes of paper. But never fear, the readings were recorded for podcast, and I’ll post the link to it when it goes live. It’s definitely worth a listen. Hawkey’s book is a stunning meditation on, with and through the poems of the great German expressionist poet Georg Trakl, and Sieburth read a series of beautifully translated geometry-based poems by Eugène Guillevic, who like my beloved Raymond Queneau studied mathematics; a book of these poems, Geometries, is just out from Ugly Duckling, and a sample poem can be read on the Presse’s website. The Q & A after the readings was fascinating, with Sieburth and Hawkey (along with Celan translator Pierre Joris, who chimed in from the sidelines) talking about the materiality of language and the transformative process of shifting poems from one language to another. Hawkey, responding to a question from the crowd, talked about the role played in his work by so-called homophonic translation, a technique made famous by Louis Zukovsky. Hawkey did a lot of it in the process of composing the poems that make up the bulk of his Trakl book, but, as he explained to the audience, in his own work homophonic translation is only an early step in the process of composing a poem, never the final one. A certain randomness inevitably results when you replace words in one language with words in another on the basis of their sounding vaguely similar, though of course the process is never truly random, it’s just that you’re using the focus on sound to turn off the bossy, cognitive, semantics-obsessed part of your brain – i.e. the dumb part that can’t write poetry – so that the other part can give you some words to work with. Homophonic translation proved a fruitful way for Hawkey to interact with Trakl’s work, and the poems he composed using the material thus generated seem to slide in and out of a Traklian universe, creating what I’ll call a sort of Übertraklung (Trakl + Übertragung [translation]) that both is and is not a translation of Trakl’s poems. Hawkey admitted that he also lifted lines from other Trakl translations to knit back into these poems, tightening the weave. I myself make occasional use of homophonic translation when I teach translation; it helps nudge students who are too caught up in struggling with the semantics of the poems they’re translating to just stop and listen. A little of it goes a long way. Richard Sieburth concluded the discussion by talking about his relationship to the two languages he translates from, German and French. Listening to him speak about them, I was left with the impression that German, which he spoke as a small child, really is the language of his heart, while French, which he started learning at 11 or 12, is more the language of adult desire and erudition. All of these are powerful forces.

P.S. By the way, if you missed the event and are curious, there’s a podcast posted (in two parts) here – look for the files dated 2/15/12 and 4/20/12.

Festival Neue Literatur

This winter I was invited for the first time to curate a literature festival – a smallish one, with a co-curator, Paul North of Yale University. We were asked to select six younger German-speaking writers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland – two from each country – to come to New York and present their work in English-language translations to an American audience. In three weeks, the Festival Neue Literatur – German for “festival of new literature” – will present the authors we chose: Andrea Grill and Andrea Winkler of Austria, Dorothee Elmiger and Peter Weber of Switzerland, and Julia Schoch and Antje Ravic Strubel of Germany. They will be joined on panels and readings by two wonderful American writers, Francine Prose and Rivka Galchen. Organizing the festival proved complicated beyond my wildest imaginings, but now that all the details have been worked out, I am thrilled to be able to present the work of these writers to a new audience. They will be reading from and speaking about their novels on two early-evening panels the weekend of Feb. 12/13. In addition, at noon on Sunday, Feb. 13, NYU’s Deutsches Haus will host a Frühschoppen featuring micro-readings by all eight authors along with a traditional German brunch of sausages and beer; the word Frühschoppen used to mean a glass of beer consumed in the morning, especially on a Sunday, but now it is used more broadly to indicate a brunch or late-morning gathering, particularly one involving a discussion of some sort. Write to to RSVP to the Frühschoppen.
And here’s the scoop on the two evening panels:
Saturday Feb. 12: “The Future of the Novel,” featuring Peter Weber, Andrea Winkler, Andrea Grill and Rivka Galchen, with moderator Paul North, to be held at Powerhouse Arena at 37 Main Street in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood (first Brooklyn stop on the A, C or F trains), 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Sunday Feb. 13: “Writing and Memory,” with Antje Ravic Strubel, Julia Schoch, Dorothee Elmiger and Francine Prose, moderated by me, at Idlewild Books, 12 W. 19th St. @ 5th Ave., 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
There’ll be receptions as part of both events, with time to mingle with the authors and fellow book-lovers.
For more detailed descriptions of the events along with information about the authors and excerpts from their books, see the festival website. The festival is a co-production of the Goethe Institut, the Austrian Cultural Forum, Deutsches Haus, the German Book Office, the Consulate General of Switzerland and ProHelvetia, the Swiss Arts Council.
I hope you’ll come out for some great storytelling! It’s a guaranteed cure for the winter blues.

The Architecture of Translation

Yesterday I spent several hours with German poet Uljana Wolf – a book of whose poems I’m translating for Ugly Duckling Presse – going over the texts of the poems. This certainly isn’t something I always do with an author whose work I’m translating, but Uljana herself translates from English to German and speaks outstanding English. She also tends to have excellent ideas about navigating the thornier passages in her poems, which is particularly useful in the present case, since the book in question is an abecedary of sorts, each poem inspired by “false friends” or German/English cognates that wind up meaning completely different things in the two languages, and written in a mix of German and English. The “i” poem, for example, invokes the German word “igel” that appears doubly in English: both as its semantic equivalent “hedgehog” and its homophonic translation “eagle,” which get linked in a semi-narrative passage involving the sorts of animals that figure in fairy tales. In any case, being able to pick Uljana’s brain during the final revision process was invaluable, and certain choice tidbits in the translation are her personal contributions; in the “c” poem, for instance – a sensual take on love – the word “donut” that got deconstructed in the German into “du not go, or i’ll go nuts” (du = you) now reads, in the purely English version, “do nut go, or i’ll go nuts.” It’s a shame that the overtly bilingual character of the poems has to be glossed over in the translation, but the fact of the matter is that while most educated Germans read enough English to understand bilingual poems with ease, making substantial use of German in the translations would limit the poems’ readership dramatically. In any case, while revising we found ourselves swapping phrases back and forth and pinching out individual words and bits of lines that didn’t quite work, replacing them with others. And it invariably happened that the rhythms of these missing building blocks presented themselves before the words themselves could be found, a phenomenon I’ve written about elsewhere. While we were talking about our collaboration afterward, it occurred to us that this way of thinking about the translation process was well described by the great Heinrich von Kleist‘s aphorism: “The arch stands because each of its stones wants to fall.” Kleist described this phenomenon in a letter to his betrothed, Wilhelmine von Zenge, whom he was attempting to educate epistolarily, and even drew a picture to show her what he was talking about:The point of the arch was to serve as an allegorical symbol of human fortitude in the face of trials. Kleist recycled the image eight years later in his play Penthesilea, in which a consort of the beleaguered Amazon queen uses a quite similar phrase to encourage her regent to buck up. In any case, something in our conversation reminded me of this image, and when I quoted it, Uljana pointed out that it also described the very activity we’d been pursuing all afternoon: trying to find just the right combination of (individually fallible and failing) words that would prop each other up to hold the lines of poetry together. If you are curious to see the results of our efforts, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until approximately April for the appearance of our book False Friends: A DICHTionary of False Friends, True Cognates and Other Cousins, by Uljana Wolf. I’m sure we’ll be throwing a nice book party when the time comes, so watch this space for details.
(Photo of Uljana Wolf © Timm Kolln)


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